Trail Smoke Eaters down but not out

Trail Smoke Eater season rests on Salmon Arm Silver Backs

The Trail Smoke Eaters overcame a two-goal deficit in the third period but couldn’t quite complete the comeback as the Interior division front-running Penticton Vees pulled out a 5-4 victory Saturday night at the Cominco Arena.

The Smoke Eaters were coming off their second straight overtime win against the Vees on Friday, when Valik Chichkin’s goal in the 3-on-3 OT period gave Trail a 3-2 victory.

The 5-4 loss in regulation on Saturday, however, was a missed opportunity for the Smokies as the Salmon Arm SilverBacks would fall to Alberni Valley 6-3 on the same night, but then move two points ahead of Trail with a 5-4 come-from-behind win against Coquitlam Express Sunday afternoon.

The Smokies have played well down the stretch, winning four in a row prior to Saturday, and taking 2-of-3 from Penticton.

“They are a pretty good hockey team (the Vees) but it shows you what kind of team we have, the leadership and character . . . these kids never quit,” said Trail coach and GM Bill Birks. “It’s a little frustrating when Salmon Arm comes back from two and three goal deficits on the road and gets points, that’s hard to swallow.”

The Backs rallied from a 4-1 deficit in the second period to tie the Exprees, and then net the winning marker off the stick of Steve Iacobellis with just 23 seconds remaining in regulation for the crucial Backs victory. The Coquitlam loss coupled with a Langley 8-4 win over Prince George Sunday also dashed the Express’ Mainland division playoff hopes.

The Smokies, however, aren’t out of it as the Backs have two difficult road games remaining against Merritt  on Friday and Prince George Saturday.

Two Salmon Arm losses and a Smokies win against Penticton on Sunday could still launch Trail into the playoffs by virtue of having the most wins, however, a single point by the Backs this weekend would spell the end of the line for a determined Smokies side.

“Our boys are very confident,” said Birks. “We know we can beat Penticton, and hopefully, touch wood, and pray to the gods above that it will come down to Sunday whether we are in or out.”

Penticton clinched the top spot in the Interior division with the win over Trail, and coincidentally sit tied for first overall in the BCHL with Victoria, first in the Island division, and Surrey, first in the Mainland division – all with 75 points in 54 games. If all three teams win their final two games, the Vees would get the league title with the most wins.

After Trail rallied to tie it in the third period Saturday, Penticton’s Sam Mellor sent Brad McClure in all alone. McClure snapped a quick shot by the blocker of Smokies’ goalie Adam Todd to nip a valiant Smokies comeback in the bud with 5:45 to play.

“When you leave a skilled guy like that open with five minutes left,  it usually comes back to bite you.”

The Smoke Eaters started the scoring on the power play when Chichkin’s point shot sailed through a good screen set up by Adam Wheeldon.

Penticton’s Jedd Soleway would tie it on a deflection, before Louie Nanne took a pass in the slot from former Smokie Mellor and put the Vees up 2-1 on their own power play with just under three minutes remaining in the first.

The Vees took a 4-1 lead on back-to-back goals from Cody Depourq and Mike Rebry, but the Smokies Austin Adduono tipped a Marley Keca shot by Katunar on another PP to make it 4-2 with just under two minutes to go in the period.

Veteran leading scorers Garrett McMullen and Brent Baltus stepped it up in the third to draw Trail even. McMullen took a pass from Scott Davidson and squeezed a backhand through the arm of Katunar to cut the lead to 4-3.

Just over a minute later, Baltus gathered up a Jesse Knowler rebound and fired it at an empty net, but Vees D-man Bryan Sinz slid across to block it. Baltus would not miss the second time, banging the rebound into the open net to tie it at 4-4 at 8:14.

Penticton held the edge in shots 35-31, including 16 in the third period. Mellor had a three-assist night for the Vees, while the Smokies Davidson also had three helpers and Knowler finished with two points.

Trail’s final regular-season game goes at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Cominco Arena against the Penticton Vees.